Oracle and Open Source

October 21, 2013

I will be giving my last public talk in 2013 at the upcoming Search Summit. I am revealing some data about the trajectory of commercial search versus free and open source search. My focus is not just on costs. I will address the elephant in the room that few of the sleek search poobahs elect to ignore—management.

As part  of my preparation, I read an interesting public relations and positioning white paper from Oracle. The essay is “The Department of Defense (DoD) and Open Source Software.” You should be able to locate a copy at the Oracle Middleware Web page. But maybe not. Well, take that up with Oracle, Google, and whoever indexes public Web pages.

The argument in the white paper is that open source is useful within the context of commercial software. The premise is that a commercial company develops robust products like Oracle’s database and then rigorously engineers that product to meet the tough standards imposed by the US government. Then, canny engineers will integrate some open source software into that commercial solution. The client—in this case the Microsoft loving Department of Defense—will be able to get the support it needs to handle the demands of global war fighting.

There are three fascinating rhetorical flourishes in the white paper. These are directly germane to the direction some of the discussions of commercial and proprietary versus free and open source software have been moving. I will give a couple of case examples in my talk in early November 2013, and I assume that the slide deck for my talk will find its way into one or more indexing services. I won’t plow that ground again. Below are some new thoughts.

First, the notion that commercial and proprietary software is better than open source software is amusing. I think that any enterprise software is rife with bugs and problems that can never be fixed because there is neither time, money, or appetite to ameliorate the problems. I was at a meeting at the world’s largest software company when one executive said, “There are a couple thousand bugs in Word. Numbering is one issue. We will maybe get around to fixing the problem.” That was six years ago. Guess what? Numbering is still an interesting challenge in a long document. Is Oracle like the world’s largest software company? Oracle has some interesting features in its products? Check out this sample page. Make your own decision. Software has been, is, and will be complicated stuff. The fact that people correlate clicking a hot link with “simple” just adds impetus to the “this is easy” view of modern systems. No software is better. Some works within specific parameters. Push outside the parameters and you find darned exciting things.

Second, the idea that a large bureaucracy can make decisions based on cost benefits is crazy. Worldwide bean counters and lawyers work to nail down assumptions and statements of work that are designed to minimize costs and deliver specific functionality. How is that working out? If I read one more after the fact analysis of the flawed heath insurance Web site, I may unplug my computer and revert to paper and printed books. I did a major study of a government site in 2007. Guess what? The system did not work and still does not work. Are there analyses, reports, and Web pages explaining the issue? Sure. What’s the fix? People either go to a government office and talk to a human or make a phone call in the hope that the human on the other end of the line can address the issue. The computer system? Unchanged. My report? Probably still in a drawer somewhere.

Third, the idea that a publicly traded company cares about open source is amusing. Open source is simply a vehicle to reduce costs to the publicly traded company and generate consulting revenue. The fact is that most of the folks who embrace open source need some help from firms specializing in that open source product. I can name two companies, each with more than $30 million in venture funding, that have a business model built on selling proprietary software, consulting, and engineering services. Open source sure looks like a Trojan horse to me. Why does IBM embrace Lucene yet sell branded products and services? Maybe to eliminate some software acquisition costs and sell consulting.

A happy quack to

On one hand, Oracle is correct in pointing out that free and open source software looks cheaper than commercial and proprietary software in terms of licensing fees. Oracle is also correct that the major cost of software has little to do with the license fee.

On the other hand, Oracle adds some mist to the fog surrounding open source. When open source vendors have to generate revenue to pay back investors or build out their commercial business, the costs are likely to be high.

Open source software begins as a public spirited effort, a way to demonstrate programming skills, and a marketing effort. There are other reasons as well. But in today’s world, software is the weak link in most businesses. Systems are getting less reliable, despite the long string of nines that some companies use to prove their systems are wonderful. But like the optical character recognition program that is 99 percent accurate, the more content pushed through these system, the more the errors mount. Xerox continues to struggle with error rates in a technology that was supposed to be a slam dunk.

Net net: Read the Oracle white paper. Then when you work out a budget, focus less on the sizzle of open source and more on the basic management skills it takes to make something work on time and on budget. Remember. Publicly traded companies and open source companies that have taken money from venture capitalists have to generate a profit or they disappear.

The basics are important. The Oracle white paper skips over some of these in its effort to put open source in perspective. Any software project requires attention to detail, pragmatism, technical expertise, and money.

Stephen E Arnold, October 21, 2013


2 Responses to “Oracle and Open Source”

  1. Mclaurin on November 22nd, 2013 12:28 am

    Thanks for an amazing blog which is very helpful and informative for a lot of people’s.Great post with lots of impotant stuff.

  2. Techblue Software Private Limited Gurgaon on November 22nd, 2013 12:39 am

    You are uncovering some information about the trajectory of business search versus free and open source look. I read an interesting advertising and positioning white paper from Oracle. I think some of the discussions of business and restrictive versus free and open source software have been moving. The Open source software starts as an open spirited effort and a marketing effort. Visit my website and get useful information about open source software .

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